I DIDN'T LOSE MY FAITH, I JUST DON'T
make up for your sins in Church.
You do it in the streets.
Shelby is a professor of African and African-American studies
and philosophy at Harvard University, and contributes to
theroot.com. He is the author of We
Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundation of Black Solidarity
my faith in college -- and lost it there, too. Though Harvard
is often said to have ruined more good Negroes than bathtub
gin, it was actually at Florida A&M University, a historically
black university, that I went from being a devout Christian
to being an atheist.
I didn't read the Bible growing up, I was taught to respect
it as the authoritative word of God. In my home, as in many
black homes, God's existence was treated as an obvious fact
and was never questioned. So when, during the spring of my freshman
year, a friend invited me to join a Bible study group, I couldn't
refuse. How could I truthfully say I believed that this sacred
text expressed God's will for my life and not even bother to
so one day, after much study, I joined a church and was baptized.
Soon I was earnestly sharing the gospel with family and friends.
I lived at home during the summer after my freshman year, and
my mother and I studied together. As a result, her faith was
renewed. Indeed, she held tightly to her faith until the day
say the same for myself. By the time I graduated, I no longer
believed in God. I didn't get to this place easily. It was a
painful and trying process that involved hours of study, reflection,
self-examination, fasting and prayer.
come to my religious belief through, among other things, a search
for truth. I felt that if God had given me the rational capacity
to discern the truth, I should not hesitate to use it, even
if this use involved reconsidering my reasons for believing
in his existence. Testing my belief would only make it stronger,
drawing on the history of philosophy and theology, I carefully
considered the main arguments for and against God's existence:
Pascal's wager, the first-cause argument, the argument from
design, the problem of evil and so on. I took courses in the
history of the Bible and on the major world religions.
the intellectual road was not the hardest part of my journey.
Confronting my underlying motives for having faith was much
is a mundane feature of the human condition that we are susceptible
to self-deception and wishful thinking. In particular, the cognitive
side of our minds can sometimes unknowingly surrender to the
emotional, non-cognitive side. We believe some things, not because
we have good reasons for thinking them true, but because believing
them gives us hope, consolation or a sense of security.
that my belief in God was ultimately rooted in things like fear
of death, desire for community or longing for the loving father
figure I didn't have. Was my attraction to Christian doctrines
driven by the fact that I was a lonely, alienated, scared kid
looking for something firm to hold on to? After all, faith made
me feel powerful and protected.
could God respect my conviction if it was grounded in such things?
I had to look deep inside myself to scrutinize my motives. Once
I had done this, I was free to follow my reasoning wherever
it took me.
think there's a good reason to believe in God. And I don't believe
that faith alone can be a good reason to form ‘any’
belief. Rather than say I lost my faith, I should probably say
I came to reject faith, to be against it.
don't see the justification for carving out a special exception
for religious beliefs as convictions that require no reasons
or evidence. Not only does faith not ground theism, but it also
can't help you decide which of the vast array of religious doctrines,
if any, to accept. It would be like flipping a coin.
black people with whom I've talked about this, including some
people I love, find my rejection of faith baffling or frightening.
Some feel sorry for me. Others suspect that my atheism is rooted
in disappointment with a particular church or with organized
religion in general, in a desire to be free to sin without guilt
or in anger toward God for his failure to help when I or my
people needed him most.
doubt some feel that it just confirms their belief that higher
education (and the study of philosophy in particular) is a destroyer
of faith and distances black youths from the venerable traditions
of their people. What black believers I know rarely do is engage
seriously with my reasons for nonbelief. Instead of regarding
me as someone with whom they have an honest disagreement, as
someone they can perhaps persuade, they look upon me with contempt
ago, at a Thanksgiving dinner in Atlanta, my aunt invited family
members to attend services at her church the next day. I flatly
declined. When pressed, I revealed (with some relish, I'm embarrassed
to admit) that I was not simply a lapsed Christian but a convinced
atheist who professed no religious belief.
family members were angry and felt betrayed. One called me a
fool. My grandmother exclaimed that I had lost my mind. A few,
I knew, agreed with me but kept silent, nonetheless.
my surprise, my mama (the woman I had brought to Christ) defended
my right to form beliefs, even about God, as I saw fit and urged
others to respect my views and to try to understand where I
was coming from. My mama had dropped out of high school while
pregnant with me. As a single, working mother of six, she lived
a hard, lonely and all-too-short life (she died at age 48).
Without her faith and church, I'm certain she would have sunk
into deep depression.
an intellectual, by natural disposition and vocation. I have
chosen to live a life of the mind in a community of scholars
where my nonbelief is unremarkable. My path is not for everyone.
And I don't expect most black folk to leave the Lord. What I
would like to see, though, is greater respect for and understanding
toward the non-believers among us. If my mother could muster
it, surely we all can.